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Arizona House speaker proposes requiring districts to boost teachers’ pay

In this Tuesday, May 3, 2016 file photo, Rep. J.D. Mesnard, left, R-Chandler, talks with Rep. Steve Montenegro, right, R-Avondale, in the House during budget deliberations at the state Capitol in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX — Republican House Speaker J.D. Mesnard on Tuesday rolled out a last-minute proposal requiring school districts to spend half of their yearly inflation increases on teacher raises.

The proposal, an amendment to an unrelated education bill, would require school districts to spend about $38 million a year on raises for their teachers. Debate was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon but is now expected to be Wednesday.

The state budget passed last week gave teachers a 1 percent raise at a cost of $34 million.

The Arizona School Boards Association quickly came out in opposition.

The group said the requirement directly violates a voter-approved law requiring the Legislature to provide yearly inflation increases and last year’s Proposition 123, which added about $350 million in new funding for schools each year.

That measure settled a lawsuit brought by schools over the Legislature’s failure to provide the inflation increases and had no strings on the cash.

Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, agreed with the association’s analysis.

“Prop. 123 and the education settlement are settled and done,” Scarpinato said. “We’re not looking to renegotiate the settlement.”

Arizona teachers are among the lowest-paid in the nation, and how to fund teacher raises was a major issue for Ducey and the Legislature in the current session.

Ducey originally proposed a 2 percent raise over five years, but was criticized for giving what amounted to a $1 a week raise.

Republican majority lawmakers boosted that to 2 percent over two years, while Democrats fought for a full 4 percent increase.

Mesnard said in an interview that he was pushing the amendment in the final days of the session to counter arguments from the school boards association and others that the 1 percent raise was all the Legislature provided.

In fact, lawmakers are expected to provide close to $80 million in cash to adjust for inflation, some of which they expect to be for raises.

“The point of the amendment is to highlight that we actually fund cost of living adjustments in the baseline formula,” Mesnard said.

“So when folks act like the only teacher pay that happening is from our $1,000 raise, that’s just wrong. In fact some people mistakenly think that our raise is for cost of living, and so we’ve got to dispel that myth. We’ve got to make it very clear that when we fund inflation every year the purpose is to inflate everything and half if it or so is teacher salary.”

School officials argue that total state funding has gone down by large amounts over the past decade.

The Legislature’s own analysis shows per-student state funding is currently $4,529, compared to $4,949 in 2008. Adjusted for inflation, the current figure equals $3,911 per student in 2008 dollars.

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